Some Arizona Disability Providers Say They Can't Get Personal Protective Equipment

By Kathy Ritchie
Published: Monday, May 11, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Monday, May 11, 2020 - 3:59pm

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Mark Jacoby, CEO of Gompers
Caring for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is a high touch line of work. Employees often make only around minimum wage. Some providers worry without PPE, staff might not want to continue working.

Arizonans with an intellectual or developmental disability often attend day programs or live in communal settings, like a group home. Keeping them safe during the coronavirus pandemic is tough. And when there’s limited personal protective equipment, that job is even tougher.

Wendy Shaw is the CEO of an organization called Aires, which provides services, like housing, to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. "Through this crisis, they are on the frontline," she said.

Shaw is talking about the people who are currently working in one of Aires’ 65 group homes.

"They are in there day to day providing care to somebody, bathing somebody, feeding somebody, changing somebody’s adult diaper."

120,000+ number of people in Arizona living with an intellectual or developmental disability

And if someone has a confirmed case of COVID-19, personal protective equipment will be critical. But Shaw said they don’t have enough of it.

"We have been able to secure cloth masks for all of our staff and the people we support."

As in homemade masks. At the time of this interview, Shaw said there had been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the members she serves… but they have had suspected cases. Which meant a 14-day quarantine for the individual.

"One of the surprises and challenges was to shift from a model where, we’re not medical professionals we’re almost asked to be. said.

And without that protective equipment — masks, gowns, gloves and face shields — "It’s been quite scary for our staff in cases where we’ve had someone that has been tested."

She says in one case it took seven days to get those test results back.

"We generally have 11 staff that work in that home," she said. "Right off the bat, six of them hey I’m not coming back during this time. You’re asking me to risk myself and risk my family for minimum wage."

43,942 Total number of DDD members

KJZZ reached out to the Arizona Department of Economic Security to find out why these providers can’t get personal protective equipment. In a statement, a spokesperson acknowledged that DES and the Division of Developmental Disabilities have heard from many providers who can’t get protective equipment, despite receiving additional funding to purchase it. DES Director Tom Betlach sent a letter in mid-April to all county health departments asking that residential facilities that follow state and county guidelines for obtaining equipment be given priority in the distribution hierarchy.

Jon Meyers is with the ARC of Arizona, a disability advocacy group. He says while the Division of Developmental Disabilities has hosted online listening sessions and town halls.

"The reality is that DDD has done very little to make sure providers can get their hands on personal protective equipment," he said.

And they’re competing with medical and long-term care providers. Worse yet, some who managed to obtain equipment later saw their shipments confiscated, according to Meyers.

"When providers don’t have the equipment and they don’t have a source actively working on their behalf to get them that equipment it leaves our members at risk." he explained. "It leaves people with disabilities, vulnerable populations at risk. And our fear is when those people are at risk, bad things are likely to happen."

Mark Jacoby, CEO of Gompers
Gompers closed in March, but Gompers CEO Mark Jacoby hopes to open back up in June. His concern, however is having sufficient PPE for staff.

But it's not just the residential settings that are struggling.

Mark Jacoby is the CEO of Gompers. A day program for people with IDD. Recently, Gompers got a shipment of 4,000 disposable facemasks.

"Which sounds like a tremendous amount," he said. "It’s a big number."

But Jacoby has a staff of 300 people. He says even if a staffer wore their mask the entire day before tossing it out…

"That’s only three and a half weeks’ worth of masks at $3,000," he said. "That is simply financially unsustainable for us."

And without enough personal protective equipment staff might quit. Families might not want to send their loved ones back to Gompers. But let’s say Jacoby overcomes those challenges.

"The question of course then becomes, how do you reopen? How do you practice social distancing with a group of individuals — that is, many of them will have a hard time understanding social distancing," he said. "We’re going to have to re-engineer the space."

43 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of May 4

Leaving many more questions than answers for these providers.

DES confirmed that, as of May 4, 43 people with intellectual or developmental disabilities have been diagnosed with confirmed COVID-19. 

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